This excerpt is from Chapter Seven - "Special Deliveries."
The principal express companies of the Civil War era all remain in business today: American Express, now a global leader in travel and financial services; Adams Express, a successful investment trust; and Wells Fargo, one of the country’s best known banking interests. Though the companies’ missions have changed over the years, their names have not, and each points with pride to its Civil War heritage.
During the war, they shipped arms, munitions, and other supplies; delivered packages from the home front to soldiers in camps and hospitals; and forwarded soldiers’ pay and messages back to their homes.
They also got into some trouble in doing so: accused by Northerners of being traitorous and being robbed by Confederate guerillas of the treasure in their charge - which you can read about in today's excerpt from Lincoln's Labels!
by James M. Schmidt
Gestures of patriotism and declarations of fidelity notwithstanding, some citizens accused the express companies of the very opposite, especially Adams Express, which historically had stronger commercial ties to the South. The problems began when Postmaster General Montgomery Blair ordered the cessation of U.S. mail service throughout the South on May 31, 1861. In doing so, he created a heavy business for the express companies, and a ready (and for awhile, legal) means for Confederate sympathizers in northern states to transmit to the South intelligence such as information about troop movements, and materiel, such as tactical and drilling manuals, firearms, and medicine.
Wartime arrest records of “Suspected and Disloyal Persons” include cases of attempted smuggling via express. In October 1861, U.S. marshals in New York arrested John F. Parr on suspicion that he purchased items in New York to transmit to his native Tennessee. Evidence against the man included a trunk seized in Buffalo - sent there by American Express - containing a large amount of quinine intended for Confederate surgeons. During an intense deposition in a separate case, a member of the “Order of American Knights” - a secret association whose members were suspected of disloyal and treasonable actions - admitted that the Order had members purposely placed in express offices.(19)
In a single week in late August 1861, Secretary of State William H. Seward received several complaints from prominent citizens in the North, including a New Yorker who wrote: “It is well known here that Adams Express daily conveys information in every shape to all quarters of the Southern Confederacy.” In another letter, a self-described “Union man to the backbone” complained “considering the facility the enemy has for letter transportation [via Adams] it is not to be wondered at that they know our movements so well,” and demanded that “something be done to suppress such a dangerous conveyance.”(20)
Northern newspapers printed caustic accusations that the express companies carried mail and packages to and from the South. After a Philadelphia paper reported that the Adams Express would be brought to trial for the purported traffic, Adams’s General Superintendent in the city wrote a strongly worded rebuttal to the War Department with a demand that it “make someone responsible for statements of this character.”(21)
On the authority of E.D. Gazzam, chairman of the “Committee on the Transportation of Contraband Goods,” other papers published allegations that American Express had “gone around to various houses which had been shipping this kind of goods by the Adams Express Company…and informing those houses that if they would ship their goods by the American Express Company such goods would pass safely by other and more northern routes.”(22)
In response, Henry Wells, President, and Alex Holland, Managing Director, of American Express, issued a rebuttal:
“this company has, on the contrary, through its officers and agents, issued orders to all their collectors and receivers of freight to take nothing like arms or munitions of war, or any kind of contraband articles for any point in the seceding States…besides which they have stopped on the way and refused to forward many articles which they had only a doubt in their nature…The officers of the federal, State, and city governments are fully aware of the course we have pursued from the beginning, and approve of the same, and are constantly employing us in transporting for them.”(23)
Critics might have tempered their accusations had they known the risks that expressmen took in performing their services on behalf of the Union. Confederate sympathizers surrounded express offices in Union-held territory in states such as Mississippi and Kentucky, and Rebel cavalry and guerillas fired on trains, made off with packages and money, and took expressmen as prisoners. In April 1862, at the Battle of Shiloh, a cannonball passed through and nearly destroyed the log house the Adams agent used as an office. Charles Woodward, a wartime superintendent for Adams, was captured several times, once by the Rebel cavalryman Nathan Bedford Forrest; in another episode he was pressed into service as an ersatz artilleryman in an emergency defense of the Union-held fort at Helena, Arkansas.
If American and Adams were closer to the “sword,” then Wells Fargo was closer to the “purse,” and distance from the battlefields did nothing to protect its expressmen or the treasure in its charge. The daily shipments of California gold and Nevada - by land and sea - made an inviting target for Rebel sympathizers and guerillas. Capture of the valuable metals put badly needed cash into Confederate hands while damaging the Union’s purchasing power and weakening its credit.
Recognizing the threat, Wells Fargo joined more than thirty other banks and merchants and petitioned Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles for protection in April 1862. The businessmen, acting on information that there were “citizens of Spain and other foreign countries who are…in possession of letters of marque, granted by the Confederate states, who are likely to seize upon the California steamers, on the Pacific and Atlantic, having on board large amounts of treasure,” petitioned Welles to “detail a Government steamer on the Pacific to act as a convoy.”(24)
Their fears were well founded: on December 7, 1862, the Ariel, a packet steamer owned by shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, was rounding Cape Maysi, Cuba, when the Confederate raider CSS Alabama, commanded by the intrepid Raphael Semmes, came upon her rapidly. The Alabama fired twice, striking the Ariel’s foremast. Facing a faster ship with superior firepower, the Ariel’s captain had no choice but to ransom the ship to Semmes. In doing so, he surrendered more than $15,000 belonging to Wells, Fargo & Co.
Wells Fargo treasure was also at the center of what one historian called “without question the most daring and desperate undertaking by any of California’s Secessionist movement.” The instigators were the so-called “Captain Ingram’s Partisan Rangers,” named for Rufus Ingram, an erstwhile member of William Quantrill’s band of guerillas. Ingram’s band had spent weeks observing the comings-and-goings of Wells Fargo shipments. The targets were two stagecoaches that had left the Virginia City, Nevada, mines with nearly $30,000 in bullion.(25)
On the night of June 30, 1864, the coaches reached a bend in the road at Placerville, California where the “Rangers,” masked and armed with pistols and shotguns, were lurking. Ingram jumped in front of the lead coach and demanded the silver bars and gold dust. The driver retorted “Come and get it,” at which point two of Ingram’s men threw the bags to the ground. Ingram sent the lead coach on its way when he saw the trailing coach come around the bend. Ingram declared: “Gentleman, I will tell you who we are. We are not robbers, but a company of Confederate soldiers…All we want is Wells, Fargo and Company’s treasures to assist us to recruit the Confederate Army.”(26)
As the band of Rebels removed treasure from the second coach, Ingram handed the driver a receipt stating: “This is to certify that I have received from Wells, Fargo, & Co. the sum of $_________ cash [in his haste, Ingram failed to enter his take], for the purpose of outfitting recruits in California for the Confederate States Army.”(27)
Lawmen, aided by citizen posses, pursued the robbers and surprised them at a boardinghouse not far from the crime scene and a firefight ensued. A deputy sheriff was killed, another was wounded, and one of the robbers was captured. The pursuit continued, and by early September all of the Rangers had been killed or captured, except for Ingram and another who made it to Missouri. At trial, one of the guerillas testified to the band’s motive: “They were robbing our people back home and it was nothing but right to rob the Federal Government, or rob Wells, Fargo, & Co.’s Express. We had a right to retaliate.”(28)
Added to care packages, pay, battlefield souvenirs, and government treasure, the express companies also handled (probably unwittingly) a number of banned items, especially liquor. A wartime American Express circular warned that in addition to other items prohibited by the Treasury Department and military authorities, agents were “specially enjoined not to receive…any package or article of freight which they have reason to believe contains spirituous liquor.” Generals and provost marshals ordered express agents to subject every box to strict inspection and confiscate such items, but ingenious subterfuges still worked: peaches in glass jars were awash in liquor instead of syrup; bottles of patent medicines, emptied of their contents, were filled with something more intoxicating; and trunks false bottoms concealed bottles of wine.(35)
Even authorized shipments of liquor were not always safe. Adams’s superintendent Woodward recalled an incident when one of his messengers was to deliver a barrel of whisky to the Union Army military hospital in Jackson, Tennessee. The expressman delivered the barrel at the train station platform and took the railroad agent’s receipt. A freight car loaded with soldiers was on the rear of the train that carried the whisky. Woodward remembered: “As the car slowly passed the platform when the train had started, four of the soldiers jumped upon the platform, and, though the train was still in motion, succeeded in pitching the barrel of whisky into the car in the presence of the agent who could not stop them.” The agent informed the commanding general, who telegraphed ahead to authorities in Corinth, Mississippi, to arrest every man in the car on arrival. After their capture and arrest the men were sentenced to forfeit two months’ pay and reimburse Adams Express for the value of the whisky.(36)
Seemingly innocent clothing sent from home to the camp also proved a bane to maintaining discipline in the Union army. In February 1863, from his camp near Falmouth, Virginia, an adjutant sent a letter to officials of Adams Express stating that packages containing certain attire would not be allowed for soldiers’ use. He made exceptions for underclothing, mittens, and “other little items that may be desired,” but strictly forbade outer garments, adding that the policy was necessary due to the “pernicious practice of treasonable persons sending citizens’ clothing to soldiers here to encourage and facilitate desertion.”(37)
Commenting on the flip side of this problem, another wartime expressman wrote of his bemusement at the “habits of rigid economy” of soldiers from Maine who were “exceedingly careful” with their worn clothes: “After a new fit-out was furnished a regiment, the ragged, filthy, and worthless duds were packed in boxes and sent home to their friends from sadly mistaken motives of economy – thousands of these boxes constantly arriving per express to their destination…a large proportion of them freight unpaid, at burdensome charges to the almost destitute families…from five to twenty-five dollars and upwards, the contents of which were utterly worthless unless as paper stock.”(38)
19. For the case of John H. Parr, see Official Records (OR), Series 2, Vol. II, p. 1023; also see mention of express companies in the deposition of Green B. Smith of the “Order of American Knights,” in OR, Ser. 2, Vol. VII, p.648.
20. “It is well known here…” in OR Ser. 2, Vol. II, p. 579; “Considering the facility…”in OR, Ser. 2, Vol. II, p. 44.
21. OR Ser. 2, Vol. II, p. 87.
22. A. L. Stimson, History of the Express Business (New York: Baker & Goldwin, 1881), p. 115.
23. Ibid, pp. 115-16.
24. OR (Navy), Series 1, Vol. I, pp. 10-11.
25. K. Boessenecker, Badge and Buckshot: Lawlessness in Old California (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988), p. 133; Robert Chandler, Senior Research Historian, Wells Fargo Historical Services, San Francisco, CA, has concluded that the raid’s daring was matched in its foolhardiness because the gang robbed the “down” coach – carrying heavy silver bars – rather than the “up” stage to Virginia City carrying cash in gold coin (letter from Chandler to author, 24 April 2007).
26. Ibid, p. 142.
27. Ibid, p. 144.
28. Philip L. Fradkin, Stagecoach: Wells Fargo and the American West (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002), p. 74.
35. Circular to Agents, February 6, 1863, American Express Corporate Archives
36. C. Woodward, “Express Operations During the War,” The Express Gazette, Vol. XXII, No. 5, May 15, 1897, p. 139.
37. OR, Ser. 1, Vol. 25, Part II, p. 73.
38. T. W. Tucker, Waifs from the Waybills of an Old Expressman (Boston: Lee and Shephard, 1872), p. 69